A protester holding up Hong Kong Independence flag, Lunch with You event, IFC Mall, Central, Hong Kong, May 29th, 2020.
Tommy Walker—NurPhoto/Getty Images
June 9, 2020 5:22 AM EDT

In late May and early June, a new chant started to be heard at Hong Kong protests: “Hong Kong Independence, the only way out!”

Stymied by their failure to win political concessions from the city’s Beijing-backed government after months of violent street protests, hardline elements among the city’s black-clad democracy activists have taken to openly calling for a break from China.

“It’s time to escalate,” says W., a 20-year-old university student involved in the protest movement, who asked to only be identified by an initial. Having spent much of the past year fighting for the ouster of Hong Kong’s leader and a broader electoral system, he now believes independence is the right strategy.

His demand comes at a critical juncture for the semi-autonomous territory of 7.2 million people, which was retroceded to China in 1997 after 156 years as a British colony. In late May, Beijing announced that it would bypass the local legislature to impose a national security law that would target secession, sedition, terrorism and foreign interference in the enclave. Suddenly, the risks are much higher for W and his black-clad peers.

“It is virtually inevitable that independence is moving from a very fringe idea to one that more people think about as an extreme position, a hard goal to imagine [attaining], and yet the only possible way to preserve a way of life they value deeply,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, historian and author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, tells TIME. “It is still a fringe idea but less of one than it was just a year ago.”

‘A total cutoff of communication’

June 9 marks a year since more than a million people flooded into Hong Kong’s streets in one of the largest anti-government demonstrations that the city had seen.

The mass demonstrations, which became a common weekend occurrence, eventually gave way to smaller, often violent protests that paralyzed the city for much of the second half of 2019. The unrest had its beginnings in opposition to a hated extradition bill that would have allowed suspected criminals to be sent to mainland China for trial for the first time.

Detractors said the bill was an encroachment on the autonomy promised to the former British colony after it was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. They feared that the bill would be used against Beijing’s political opponents, who could find themselves transported over the border on bogus criminal charges. But the protests quickly morphed into an all-out revolt over Beijing’s attempts to control the territory of 7.2 million.

Thousands were injured and arrested during the months of unrest. The legislature was ransacked, university campuses turned into battlegrounds, and millions of dollars of damage was caused by protesters, who set fires, smashed shops, lobbed countless petrol bombs and vandalized subway stations.

The global pandemic has seem calm restored to Hong Kong streets for much of 2020. But in recent weeks, opposition to the proposed national security law, and to legislation criminalizing the disrespect of China’s national anthem, has sparked fresh unrest. Thousands of people gathered on June 4 to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, defying a ban from local authorities, who opposed the gathering in social-distancing grounds.

“One nation, one Hong Kong,” some yelled at the gathering. “Hong Kongers, build the nation,” others chanted.

Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for China Studies, tells TIME that the rhetoric is borne from a sense of helplessness among protesters. He says separatism seems to be most popular with people below the age of 25, including high school and college students but adds that most protesters know that independence for Hong Kong is nearly impossible.

“There is a total cutoff of communication between the young people in Hong Kong and Beijing, particularly the young people who have lost confidence in Beijing’s willingness to listen to them,” says Lam. “There’s nothing young people in Hong Kong can do except rhetorically.”

Roberto, a 27-year-old counselor and protester, exemplifies the point. He doesn’t think an independent Hong Kong would have enough international support — nor would it be beneficial for Hong Kong economically. But he says he’s been joining in the recent calls for the “Hong Kong nation.”

“I find myself chanting for Hong Kong independence on the streets, I think it’s really out of desperation,” he says. “When the communist regime sees no point in keeping up the pretense [of Hong Kong autonomy] then more and more people are saying ‘Well if it’s going this way, then really, the only way out is Hong Kong independence.'”

The idea has not gained widespread support among the broader Hong Kong pubic. Just seventeen percent of Hong Kongers said they supported independence from the mainland in a survey conducted for Reuters by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute at the end of 2019.

Those who have expressed support for the idea have also been swiftly punished. In 2016, incoming legislators who turned their swearing-in ceremonies into an expletive-ridden, pro-independence stunt were barred from office. In 2018, activist Ventus Lau was disqualified from running for the legislature on the grounds that he had previously showed support for an independent Hong Kong on his Facebook page (he later publicly renounced the idea). A political party which advocated for independence — the Hong Kong National Party — was also banned. A foreign journalist, Victor Mallet, was effectively expelled from the city for hosting a talk with the party’s leader.

A year on from the extradition bill protests, Hong Kong’s activists feel disheartened. They face not only an implacable Communist Party but more proactive law enforcement. At a rally on May 27 alone more than 360 people, including some young students who were taken away in their uniforms, were taken away in sweeping pre-emptive sweeping arrests. “The calculation has changed,” says Roberto.

In a city still reeling from the double blows of civil unrest and COVID-19, others say they feel like they have lost the fight. “I can see that many people are afraid and giving up” says N., a frontline protester in his twenties.

‘A bridgehead for external powers’

It is the “radical separatists” behind the protests who make the impending national security law necessary, Chinese authorities say. They point to the open calls for foreign intervention made by protesters and the waving of the U.S. flag at demonstrations. The backing given by prominent local campaigners to Washington’s threat to impose economic restrictions on Hong Kong has also infuriated Beijing.

The movement “wants to turn Hong Kong into an independent or semi-independent political entity, a bridgehead for the external powers to oppose China and the Chinese Communist Party and a chesspiece which external powers can use to contain China,” Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said in a speech on Monday.

But some experts say that it’s no coincidence that calls for Hong Kong independence have increased as Hong Kong’s autonomy has come under increasing pressure.

“It seems pretty clear that as Beijing squeezes Hong Kong, the reaction from some in Hong Kong is to want to push further in the opposite direction,” Antony Dapiran, a lawyer and author of the book City on Fire: the Fight For Hong Kong tells TIME.

Meanwhile N. is nervous that the national security law, once implemented, will make it nearly impossible to talk about things like independence. He says he’s doing what he can now to spread the message.

“Ideas are bulletproof,” he says. “Once we plant the idea in peoples’ minds it cannot be erased.”

Contact us at letters@time.com.

Read More From TIME

Related Stories

EDIT POST